Cubs

Jake Arrieta’s dream season for Cubs continues with 20th win

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Jake Arrieta’s dream season for Cubs continues with 20th win

Jake Arrieta is on a completely different wavelength right now, locked into a dream season where it feels like there is no end in sight when he pitches like this.

The crowd of 36,270 waited to give Arrieta the standing ovation on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, watching him put the finishing touches on a 4-0 complete-game victory over the Milwaukee Brewers and notch his 20th win.

And with that, the Cubs sliced their magic number down to three, positioning themselves as a team you do not want to face in the playoffs with Arrieta and Jon Lester at the top of the rotation.

The National League has taken notice, with Arrieta lowering his ERA to 1.88 and putting together 18 straight quality starts, an unbelievable run that included his no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“It just means that I’m putting my team in positions to win ballgames,” said Arrieta, who became the first Cub to reach 20 wins since Jon Lieber in 2001. “At the end of the day, that’s our goal – to try and pile on as many as we can. 

“Especially with where we’re at in the season, wins now at this time are more important than ever. Just happy about getting one for the team and keeping the momentum going.”

[MORE: Joe Maddon changes his tune on Cubs hosting concerts at Wrigley Field]

Arrieta smothered the last-place Brewers, allowing only three hits (two infield singles) and one walk and finishing with 11 strikeouts. His 0.86 ERA in 13 starts since the All-Star break is the lowest mark in major-league history. 

“It’s Bob Gibson-esque,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Maddon allowed Arrieta to throw 123 pitches and admitted he would have pulled his ace if the Cubs scored another insurance run. 

Arrieta struck out the first two batters he faced in the ninth inning – Logan Schafer and Adam Lind – and hit 94 mph with his second-to-last pitch. Khris Davis grounded out to end a game that only took two hours and 22 minutes, setting off the celebrations in Wrigleyville.  

“It’s a really tough decision to make in that moment,” Maddon said. “Honestly, if all this other stuff was not attached to it, I probably would have taken him out. With everything else attached to it, I thought it was appropriate to send him back out.

“You have to be in the dugout to really feel all of that. Believe me, I didn’t do it lightly or easily. I thought about it a lot.” Arrieta has now thrown 216 innings – or almost 60 more than he did last year in the big leagues. The Cubs are counting on him to shut down the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Oct. 7 wild-card game and lead this team on a long postseason run.

“It’s uncharted territory,” Maddon said. “It’s all this stuff that’s very prominent in the news right now regarding pitchers and innings pitched. The thing I’ve talked about with him (is) the fact that he’s not in his early 20s. The fact that he’s been pitching for awhile, I think, separates him.

“Combine that with his workout regimen, what kind of shape he’s in, it was kind of like honestly a non-stressful 120 pitches, if that makes sense. He wasn’t really in a lot of binds during the course of the game.” 

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Cubs have won almost 75 percent of the games started by Arrieta this season (23-8). He has been a stabilizing influence on a young team with rookies up and down the lineup and too many question marks in the rotation. That sense of confidence might make him arguably the team’s MVP. 

The Cy Young race could come down to Arrieta or Dodgers ace Zack Greinke (18-3, 1.65 ERA), which seemed unthinkable when the Cubs made that Scott Feldman trade with the Baltimore Orioles in the middle of the 2013 season. 

Within the American League East, Arrieta had a reputation as someone who would unravel, letting the game get too fast and giving up the big inning.   

With a straight face, Arrieta said he didn’t feel all that sharp during his fourth complete game this season, but he’s willed himself into becoming a No. 1 starter.

“I felt off, but you have a handful of starts where it’s a toss-up,” Arrieta said. “You’re not sure which way it’s going to go, but your mindset plays a big deal in what the outcome looks like. So try to be mentally tough and grind it out.”

The Cubs allowed Arrieta to be himself and didn’t try the cookie-cutter approach that didn’t seem to work in Baltimore (20-25, 5.46 ERA). Coaches Chris Bosio, Mike Borzello and Lester Strode didn’t try to completely rewire Arrieta’s mechanics or stop his crossfire motion.

The Cubs also discovered a curious student who would embrace the analytics, apply scouting reports and think on his feet. That immersion into the mental side of the game means Arrieta might only be getting started with 20 wins.     

“I know the results have been good, but I don’t dwell on it for too long,” Arrieta said, “because tomorrow I’m getting ready for Pittsburgh. At the end of the day, the body of work has been good. It’s been what my team has needed. 

“I’m just fortunate to be in situations where the team’s scoring runs, I’m pitching well and the wins add up. It’s just kind of one of those things that doesn’t happen often. But you try and appreciate it when they do.”

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Can Jon Lester get out of his slump?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Can Jon Lester get out of his slump?

David Haugh, Ben Finfer and Seth Gruen join Kap on the panel.

0:00- The Cubs winning streak is over as Jon Lester's struggles continue. Should fans be worried that he can't get out of this slump? Would he be a playoff starter right now?

8:40- The White Sox rebuild continues as Rick Hahn says fans might have to wait until next spring to see whether or not they'll be contenders. Is next year too early to compete?

15:00- The Bears backups get ready to face the Colts backups Saturday night. Is there any reason to have the preseason at all?

18:30- Mitch Trubisky's preseason is over. So is he ready for Week 1?

20:00- College football is back. The panel give their picks for Florida vs Miami in the Fanduel Friday Faves.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

Cubs rallying behind Jon Lester after another tough outing

There are three ways to look at the Cubs' 9-3 loss Friday:

1) Jon Lester had another rough outing and the sun is starting to set on his career as a front-of-the-rotation starter.

2) Lester gave up some hard contact, but also had some tough luck and pitched better than his final line indicated.

3) Meh.

To be honest, each of the three perspectives has an element of truth to it, but the third one is probably the main way to look at it as the Cubs tasted defeat for the first time in a week.

No, the team did not play well, but it went far beyond Lester.

The Nationals didn't get into town until the wee hours of Friday morning, yet it was the Cubs who looked sluggish Friday. They managed only two baserunners - a single and a walk - until the ninth inning when they put together a too-little-too-late rally thanks to some shoddy Washington fielding.

But even if the offense did come to play, the game was out of hand by the fifth inning, when Lester and Pedro Strop combined to allow 3 runs, extending Washington's lead to 7-0.

Lester was charged with 6 runs on 9 hits and a walk over 4.1 innings, but 8 of those 9 hits were singles. The only extra-base knock off the Cubs southpaw was Adam Eaton's line drive home run in the first inning that he smacked into the 18 mph wind howling in off the lake.

Of the singles, a couple were hard ground balls knocked down by Cubs infielders and one was a perfectly executed bunt by pitcher Anibal Sanchez with two strikes that the Cubs had no choice but to hope it would roll foul. At that point in the fourth inning, the score was only 3-0, but the Cubs' misfortune seemed to open the door for the Nationals.

"I'm telling you, I don't think he was that bad today," Maddon said. "We were a little bit unlucky with him. ... Outside of that last inning when they squared him up, I thought he actually threw the ball decently.

"I think he's gonna be fine. He will find a way to get himself back into the picture in the right way. There's a lot of time left with the playoffs, etc., so I'm counting on it. I believe in Jon."

Beyond the tough luck, the Nationals hit five balls more than 100 mph off Lester, including a 108.5 mph single on the final batter (Juan Soto) he faced in the fifth inning.

After the game, Lester couldn't do much but shrug and accept responsibility for the loss.

"I feel fine," he said. "Today sucks. Tomorrow, I'll wake up and start a new day and get ready for another start. That doesn't take the sting away from today. Joe's always said, 'you win hard, you lose hard' and losing for me is even harder than that. Sucking as a pitcher is even harder than that.

"It's my job to do better and I'm not. I let a five-game winning streak basically go by the wayside because I didn't throw the ball very well. It's frustrating, but tomorrow starts a new day and move on to the next one."

Friday's game marks the fifth time this season Lester has allowed at least 6 runs in an outing. This was his 25th start of 2019, so that means 20 percent of his appearances have resulted in putting his team in a major hole.

"I think we're getting to the point where you can't isolate [the rough games]," Lester said. "They're happening a little bit too much for myself. I felt pretty good about myself after the last one, just being able to continually execute pitches. I don't feel like stuff was much different than last time, just different results and that's the shitty part about this game and my job - it's results driven and it doesn't matter how I feel or what the gameplan was going in.

"You have to execute and get people out and keep them from scoring runs and I'm just not doing that."

Lester started the five-game winning streak for the Cubs with a performance befitting true "ace" or "stopper" status. After a pair of disheartening bullpen meltdowns, he took the ball last Saturday and shut out the Pirates through 6 innings, battling despite not having his best stuff (5 walks).

But even including that start in Pittsburgh, Lester has now allowed 23 earned runs in 24.1 innings in five starts in August.

For a 35-year-old with three World Series rings and a long track record of pitching well when the lights are the brightest, he isn't where he wants to be as September approaches in a tight playoff race.

"Better than this," he said. "Usually this is the time of year where I pitch a lot better than I have been. For whatever reason, I haven't hit that stride. I usually have ups and downs to every season, but usually more ups than downs.

"Right now, it's just continuing to go down. The old saying - one step forward, two steps back - is kinda what I'm doing right now. The positive is I physically feel fine. Can't blame it on that. Just have to be better. Tomorrow's a new day, prepare for the next one."

Even with the recent struggles, Kyle Schwarber said Lester is still the guy the Cubs would want to give the ball to in Game 1 of a playoff series.

"He'll bounce back," Schwarber said. "He knows how to handle himself really well. He's a leader out there and we always have his back."

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